GKC – Chairs; Orthodoxy Chapter 3b   Leave a comment

Today we’re going to focus on one or two paragraphs, so I may as well let you see them up front. Fair warning, it’s going to get abstract up in here, so fasten your seat belts.

Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I cannot think.”

Then there is the opposite attack on thought: that urged by Mr. H.G.Wells when he insists that every separate thing is “unique,” and there are no categories at all. This also is merely destructive. Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected. It need hardly be said that this scepticism forbidding thought necessarily forbids speech; a man cannot open his mouth without contradicting it. Thus when Mr. Wells says (as he did somewhere), “All chairs are quite different,” he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them “all chairs.”

Today, Chesterton defends categories as necessary to thought. I, in return, will grudgingly concede the point with some rather drastic revisions, and then go on to argue while categories are necessary to thought, they also hinder it.

Chesterton has already gotten his say, so it’s time for me to concede and revise. First of all, Chesterton is right in calling categories necessary to thought. You can have emotions without categories. You can feel without categories. But you cannot think without categories. If you think, “This pie is good,” then you have at least some vague notions of the categories of “pie” and “good.” This sense looks at categories as the basic elements of language. Categories in this sense are the things you use to convey meaning in a sentence. They are the building blocks of thought.

But categories are even more useful than that. Categories don’t just make up basic units, they also make big groups of related things and package them into one concept. This happens when you take a bunch of building blocks, a bunch of small categories, and put them all under one big category.

So in the first sense of category would be chair, sofa, table, bookshelf. All these are basic categories. Furniture is an example of the second sense of ideas.

So far so good. But we need to put a big old caveat in what Chesterton has said. I’ll do that with a little assistance from the other half of the Chesterbelloc

“Intelligence may be measured by the capacity of separating categories. Thus, a man who distinguishes between the office and the person is more intelligent than the man who does not. The man who distinguishes between the functions of an office in exercise and in quiescence is more intelligent than the one who does not. The man who distinguishes between the two meanings of a word often used in two senses is more intelligent than the man who does not.” Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic, “The Approach to the Skeptic”

While Chesterton calls it thinking and Belloc calls it intelligence, both are clearly trying to drive at establishing someone’s intellectual ability. And, since they seem to exactly contradict each other, they’re both right.

That is, if intellectual ability is the ability to appropriately manage categories, then each half of the Chesterbelloc has hit on one necessary task when dealing with categories: recognizing that which is different as really different, and that which is the same as really the same.

But Chesterton doesn’t consider the other side of the coin when he lashes out against against H.G. Wells.* Chesterton scoffs at Wells saying “All chairs are quite different.” But it’s true. Two chairs can be made exactly to the same specifications, but they’re still made up of entirely different atoms. As Belloc would say, the man who can distinguish between the chair on the left side of the room and the chair on the right side of the room is more intelligent than the man who cannot.

* I looked for the work Chesterton referenced, but I wasn’t able to locate it. Since H.G. Wells was an intelligent man, I’m just going to assume that he wrote intelligently, and therefore meant what I think he should have meant.

And that’s the caveat. Categories are necessary and useful. They take big groups of individual items or concepts are transform them into something manageable. But the smaller the categories we’re able to manage, the better off we are. It is useful to be able to say what a chair is. It is more useful to be able to tell the difference between a lawn chair and desk chair. It is even more useful to be able to tell the difference between two desk chairs. The smaller the categories, the more difficult it can be to manage all the information you have, but if can manage that information, you’re better off.

One of the big problems with our politics right now is that the categories we’re thinking in are too basic. We’re worried about China, when we should be encouraging particular groups of Chinese people to be friendly to us. We’re worried about Iran, when most of the Iranian population is relatively pro-American. We’re worried about big business or big government, when we should only be worrying about the aspects of business or government that make us less free.

I role my eyes when Obama gets called a socialist, because it seems to be an empty category. Obama favors private property and has not given a greater share of the economy to the poor. “Socialist” just has nasty connotations left from the Cold War, and that’s why Obama gets called a socialist. On the reverse, Bush was constantly being called a Fascist. Fascist is, if possible, an even more unmeaning phrase than socialist.

What we really need is a discussion of the particular policies which make presidents bad. What we get, instead, are accusations like socialist and communist.

We need categories, but we should make them smaller if we can. Specificity is better. And we can know this because specificity brings us closer to the way God sees the world** God does not think in categories. God does not need the word “chair” to know any given chair. What’s the line? “He has numbered the hairs on your head.” Essentially, if God pondered Obama, he would not think “socialist.” God would be pondering every thought, emotion, and experience Obama ever had. He would be familiar with Obama’s personality and philosophy and biases on a subatomic level. God would be pondering Obama as he is at the most fundamental level. And I really doubt God would see Obama, number the hairs on his head, and mutter, “Socialist.”

** For any readers who don’t view God from a monotheistic, Aristotelean based background, just substitute “God” with reality’s perception of itself. Essentially, if reality(/the Truth/the way things really are at the most basic level of existence) were able to think and perceive, this is what it would look like. I know you don’t buy that, but pretend it’s a thought experiment, mm-kay?

Categories are necessary for us because we don’t have perfect memories and an unlimited amount of time to familiarize ourselves with the peculiarities of everything. God is not limited in that way. And if we want to be like God, if we want to know see reality for the way it really is, if we want to know the Truth (for my capitalizing Catholic friends out there), then we need to get past our limitation as much as we can.

Basically I’m saying it’s a bad idea to vote everything along party lines because one party is good and the other is bad.

Well, I guess the point I’m trying to make is a bit deeper than that, but I’d settle for not voting solely based on party.

Oh, right. This is a Chesterton post.


Chesterton’s defense of categories fine, but overstating the case.

There we go.


Posted 08/02/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

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